Maggie Gyllenhaal Is Superb In The Kindergarten Teacher [Sundance Review]

PARK CITY – Lisa Spinelli, as portrayed by the effervescent Maggie Gyllenhaal, seems like the perfect teacher to guide budding five-year-old students. She is perfectly patient as her classroom learns how to put that snake-y curve into writing the letter “s.” She fills all their juice cups and prepares healthy snacks. She gives a loving smile as she waits for each child to be picked up at the end of the day. Yet, beneath that pleasant façade is someone who is seemingly unsatisfied with her life around her. And that’s one potentially obvious reason that Lisa eventually takes a strange turn in Sara Colangelo’s “The Kindergarten Teacher” which debuted Friday at the 2018 Sundance Film Festival.

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Despite a supportive husband (Michael Chernus, more than fine), Lisa seems disappointed or, at the worst, ambivalent to the choices her teenage son and daughter (Sam Jules and Daisy Tahan, almost invisible) make. There’s disdain in her voice after her son reveals he’s still set on joining the military after high school and her daughter chaff’s at mom’s advice on almost everything. The tension is evident as she wishes her home was more intellectually creative, but gives up on stopping her daughter from smoking a joint in the backyard. Lisa isn’t beaten down by her life and it’s a fine one, but there is certainly a malaise in the air.

One day, she hears one of her students, Jimmy (Parker Sevak, talented), recite a poem in class (or at least it sounds like a portion of a poem). She quickly jots it down almost shocked a young boy could compose something so eloquently. Much to Lisa’s astonishment, neither her in class aide or Jimmy’s nanny seem as excited about this potential prodigy as she is.  When she reads one of Simon’s poems out loud in her continuing education writing class (claiming it as her own) the feedback is uniformly positive, especially from the charismatic and handsome instructor (Gael Garcia Bernal, at this point underrated). Their reaction only justifies her belief in Jimmy’s impressive talents.

As Jimmy continues to randomly recite new compositions Lisa starts to become obsessed with him in a manner that would raise eyebrows if anyone was paying attention. She takes him out of class during nap time to discuss his poetry. She offers to watch him after school convincing Simon’s seemingly uninterested father (Ajay Naidu, fine) to fire that nanny she insists talks down to him. Eventually, Lisa’s obsession takes a dark and dangerous turn that you’d assume even she would realize was ludicrous. Is it her fervor over his prodigal potential? Is it her hunger for something enlightening in her life? A purpose she feels 20 years of teaching has sucked out of her?  Colangelo provides hints here and there, but there’s no definitive answer and that only matters because the film possibly needs one.

Based on Nadav Lapid’s 2014 Israeli film of the same name, Colangelo’s adaptation continually feels like it’s missing something. The filmmaker seemingly wants Lisa’s journey to be a portrait of a woman creatively unfulfilled, but that feels slightly hollow when we don’t know understand enough of how Lisa got to this point in her life. It doesn’t help that the lack of recognition at times to Lisa’s actions is more problematic on screen that it would appear on paper. Luckily though, Collangelo has Gyllenhaal, who is exceptional at times here, to carry it through.

The smartest decision both Colangelo and Gyllenhall make is to not overplay Lisa’s fixation. Like a longtime educator who’s seen it all she’s often more calm, cool and collected than you’d expect considering the circumstances. Instead, Gyllenhaal only slight hints of potential cracks to Lisa’s passionate veneer. It makes her actions never seem completely insidious and, more importantly, insures the slightly unexpected turn of events works in the context of the rest of the film.

Sort of. [B]

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